No. 25 Georgia at No. 7 Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
The stakes: Technically, Georgia can still win the SEC East if Missouri loses its last two games. The Bulldogs have encountered incredible adversity on both sides of the ball (injuries on offense, youth on defense) but can still play a major role in the SEC race down the stretch.
But obviously the bigger stakes are with the home team. Auburn's loss to LSU is preventing the Tigers from playing an immediate role in the BCS race, but if they can beat the Dawgs, they'll get two weeks to prepare for a SEC West title match in the Iron Bowl battle with Alabama.
What happens if Auburn falls behind?
A month into the 2013 season, Auburn was a bit of a mystery. Narrow home wins over Washington State and Mississippi State were fine but not impressive, but coming from 21-down early against LSU to lose 35-21 showed that Gus Malzahn's Tigers may have a little bit of fire. Beating Ole Miss at home was intriguing, but beating Texas A&M in College Station redefined the 2013 season.
Now, after three straight easy wins (two on the road), it's time for the home stretch. If Auburn beats both Georgia and Alabama at home, the Tigers will win the SEC West. That has a certain "All I have to do is win $1,000,000, and I'm a millionaire!" ring to it, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. Auburn has improved at an almost linear level from early-September to mid-November.
Here's the thing, though: Auburn really, really doesn't want to throw the football. The Tigers have been good enough at building a lead, or at least staying close, that they really haven't had to worry about that too much. Quarterback Nick Marshall has thrown only 39 passes in his four games since returning from a shoulder injury, and 23 of those came against Texas A&M. In wins over Florida Atlantic, Arkansas, and Tennessee, he's completed 11 of 16 for 163 yards.
Marshall showed early in the year that he isn't exactly inept in this regard -- he completed 23 of 34 passes and led Auburn on a late, length-of-the-field drive to beat Mississippi State on September 14. And while Auburn's passing game isn't elite, the Tigers still rank 36th in Passing S&P+ and 16th in Passing Downs S&P+. Still, the desire is to run. And run and run and run. While barely throwing, Marshall has rushed 29 times for 346 yards and three touchdowns in the last three weeks (he had 214 against Tennessee), and running back Tre Mason just keeps grinding away. After erupting for 178 yards in the upset of Texas A&M, Mason has averaged 5.6 yards per carry and 115 yards per game since.
But what if Auburn has to throw? What if Georgia manages to score a couple of early touchdowns and put the Tigers into a double-digit hole? They have only briefly trailed by more than seven points since the LSU game, and while their struggles in Baton Rouge were based partially around turnovers (three of them), there's nothing saying that can't happen again against an aggressive (for better or worse) Georgia defense. The first quarter of any game is important, but it could be doubly important in this one.
Auburn runners vs. opportunity
Georgia's defense has been rather flaky in 2013. The Dawgs rank 43rd in overall Def. F/+, but on a play-for-play basis, they are pretty capable against the run and pass. (It's the individual glitches that have doomed Georgia this fall.) And one of Georgia's strengths has been in pursuit against the run. The Dawgs can be pushed around in short-yardage (121st in Power Success Rate) and don't make a ton of plays in the backfield, but they do rank a healthy 23rd in Opportunity Rate (preventing RBs from getting five yards downfield, basically). Auburn is one of the best in the country at creating opportunities for its runners, so this is a bit of a strength-vs-strength battle.
If Georgia can create a lot of second-and-8s or third-and-6s, it could catch up to Auburn and create the same must-pass situations referenced above. Again, Auburn is pretty solid on passing downs, but the Tigers still run about 40 percent of the time on such downs. Auburn has been great at avoiding must-pass situations, but Georgia could turn the tables in that regard.
What percentage of Georgia is Georgia?
You know the story by now. Georgia's projected starting 11 on offense played exactly four plays together in 2013 before star receiver Malcolm Mitchell went down with a knee injury while celebrating a touchdown. Since then, he's been joined in the training room by running backs Todd Gurley (for a few weeks) and Keith Marshall (for the season), receivers Michael Bennett (few weeks), Chris Conley (few weeks), Justin Scott-Wesley (season), and tight end Arthur Lynch (few weeks).
It's a lot more difficult to survive a run of injuries when they're happening mostly to a specific unit or two. But Georgia has clicked right along thanks to quarterback Aaron Murray and a decent line (and strong recruiting, obviously); the Dawgs rank eighth in Off. F/+, down from last year's No. 4 ranking, but not that far down.
So what happens now that Georgia's difference-makers are getting healthy? Gurley is back and doing Todd Gurley Things, Bennett is back, and Conley and Lynch are probably back. Auburn has had a solid season defensively -- 23rd in Def. F/+, 16th in Passing Downs S&P+ -- and can swarm if you fall behind schedule, but a healthy Georgia offense could reduce Auburn's 62-percent chance of winning (below) into something closer to 50 percent. Of the opponents Auburn has faced, only Texas A&M and LSU have offenses comparable to or better than Georgia's; the Aggies and Tigers averaged 7.2 yards per play and 38 points per game against Auburn.
Projection: Auburn 31, Georgia 27
Auburn's chance of winning: 61.9%
No. 16 Michigan State at Nebraska (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2)
The stakes: A Michigan State win would bring the Spartans one step closer to a Big Ten Legends division title and a likely showdown with Ohio State in the conference championship. Minnesota could still throw a kink into the plans, but State could go from heavy favorite to heavier favorite. But a Nebraska win would throw a kink into all of that, bringing the Huskers into an unlikely tie atop the division.
Can Nebraska even pretend to move the ball?
Against Michigan, Indiana averaged 7.5 yards per play and scored 47 points. Against Michigan State, the Hoosiers averaged 4.7 per play and scored 28. Against Michigan, Notre Dame averaged 5.7 yards per play and scored 30 points. Against Michigan State, the Fighting Irish averaged 3.4 per play and scored 17.
Against Michigan, Nebraska averaged 4.1 yards per play and scored 17 points. What exactly can the Huskers expect to do against the Big Ten's best defense?
Michigan State kills your running game and dares you to throw downfield. Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong, Jr., and Ron Kellogg III are averaging a relatively aggressive 13.2 yards per completion (thanks in part to play-action and a Hail Mary) but are completing 59 percent of their passes with a 7 percent sack rate and a 5 percent interception rate. Running back Ameer Abdullah is great, but he could struggle to find space, and while the Nebraska defense should certainly hold Michigan State to under 30 points, the Nebraska offense will still have to score. Can it?
Projection: Michigan State 23, Nebraska 14
State's chance of winning: 74.3%
No. 12 Oklahoma State at No. 24 Texas (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox)
The stakes: While we have all but crowned Baylor the Big 12 champions at this point -- and justifiably so: the Bears have looked much, much better than anybody else in the conference for the season as a whole -- it bears mentioning that a) Texas is still undefeated in conference play, b) Oklahoma State's only one game back, and c) both of these teams still get a shot at Baylor (with OSU's coming in Stillwater). The winner of this battle will basically be one upset of Baylor away from stealing the Big 12 crown.
What happens in the trenches?
Desmond Roland showed exciting explosiveness last season, and despite some short-yardage glitches last year, the OSU offensive line will really never be a concern for me as long as phenomenal OL coach Joe Wickline is still around.
I wrote that in my 2013 Oklahoma State preview, and while the OSU pass protection has been as good as ever (OSU is second in Adj. Sack Rate, in part because of quick passing), the run blocking has been below average (74th in Adj. Line Yards and 108th in Stuff Rate, which is the percentage of runs stopped behind the line). Texas' defensive line isn't great against the run (75th in Adj. Line Yards, 64th in Stuff Rate, and that's before taking into account the loss of tackle Chris Whaley to injury), but when OSU cannot establish the run, it tends to put too much pressure on a passing game that has been all sorts of hit-or-miss in 2013 (48th in Passing S&P+).
On the other side of the ball, Oklahoma State stands up to the run game pretty well but can't rush the passer. This is interesting against a Texas offense that runs the ball a lot but throws a lot better than it runs. And that was true before running back Johnathan Gray was lost for the season. Texas might have to pass more, and that might be okay.
Oklahoma State's advantages are a little greater, on paper, than Texas'. But if the Longhorns win in the trenches, this game is at worst a tossup for them.
Projection: Oklahoma State 31, Texas 26
OSU's chance of winning: 66.3%
Florida at No. 10 South Carolina (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
The stakes: A South Carolina win would potentially force Missouri to beat both Ole Miss and Texas A&M to take the SEC East (barring Georgia's result), while a loss would almost eliminate the Gamecocks from contention. Plus, if Steve Spurrier's squad wants a shot at a BCS at-large bid, winning out is rather essential. On the other side, Florida needs to pull an upset of either SC or Florida State to even reach a bowl this year. A 6-6 record wouldn't salvage much from 2013, but it's still better than 5-7.
What have you, Florida?
If it were applicable, I could point out to you all the ways in which Florida is still a decent football team. Despite injuries, the Gators still have the best passing-downs defense in the country and are in the top 10 in both Rushing S&P+ and Passing S&P+ on that side of the ball. And despite general offensive incompetence, the Gators are still well above average in terms of special teams and the field position battle. Plus, while South Carolina's offense is dangerous, it's also a bit flighty; Connor Shaw doesn't seem to play well unless he has to, and his receivers come and go.
The problems, of course, are that a) Florida's strengths were strengths last week, b) Florida still lost by 17 points at home to Vanderbilt, c) South Carolina's a lot better than Vanderbilt, and d) the game's in Columbia.
This Florida team has fallen apart. If the offense can remain a neutral entity, the Gators can win with defense and special teams. But the offense is an outright mess, with opponents figuring out quarterback Tyler Murphy and linemen falling to increasingly creative injuries. Oh yeah, and now Murphy's hurt, too.
If likely starting quarterback Tyler Mornhinweg can avoid mistakes, if running back Kelvin Taylor can occasionally find some running room, and if the turnover luck goes Florida's way, an upset is certainly conceivable. But let's just say that Florida bears some burden of proof here; do the Gators have any fight left at this point?
Projection: South Carolina 24, Florida 10
SC's chance of winning: 81.7%
No. 4 Stanford at USC (8:00 p.m. ET, ABC)
The stakes: Stanford is now in control of its destiny in the Pac-12 North race ... unless it loses to a smoking-hot USC team in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Thanks to the loss to Utah, Stanford still must probably win out to keep Oregon at bay. Meanwhile, USC has won four straight in conference play, all under interim coach Ed Orgeron, and the F/+ rankings think this game is far from out of reach for the Trojans.
How good is New USC?
Since Lane Kiffin was fired, USC has played teams ranked 20th, 30th, 31st, 42nd, and 97th in the F/+ rankings, The Trojans have gone 4-1, averaged 425 yards per game and allowed 371 per game. They've averaged at least 7.3 yards per play three times and held opponents to 5.0 or worse three times.
I'm not going to try to justify the Trojans ranking ninth in the F/+ rankings, but it's perhaps safe to say they've played at a top-20 level since Orgeron took over. And while Stanford has proven its top-5 bona fides most of the year, a road game against a top-20 caliber team is anything but a gimme. USC has the defense to handle Stanford's run game better than Oregon did, and if the score remains in the teens, USC might very well have enough offense to pull an upset. It's up to USC to live up to the stats and make this a game, but you might want to keep an eye on this one.
Projection: Stanford 18, USC 11
Stanford's chance of winning: 68.4%